12 Most Distracting Personalities While Public Speaking (and How to Mitigate Them)

12 Most Distracting Personalities While Public Speaking (and How to Mitigate Them)

Most people would prefer death to public speaking. Humans are social creatures… why are so many averse to presenting or teaching in front of a group? Unless you have really been trained on how to manage the Heckler, the Rambler and the Silent Starer… public speaking experience will surely be torture.

Time to end the torture! Make your way down the list below and learn the secret to handling these little devils that plague even the most experienced public speaker. (And when you’re ready to really be honest, perhaps consider which of these behaviors you’ve indulged in as an audience member)

1. The Professional Heckler

Online, this person is known as The Troll – aggressive and argumentative. Do not to engage the heckler directly; that’s exactly what they want. Instead, disarm in one of two classic ways: 1) point out something they said that is right… and then move quickly to your next point. If the Heckler is just wrong, highlight the mistake – and ask the group to comment on the misstatement.

2. The Talker

There’s usually a Talker in every group – not usually aggressive and nasty; more like a show-off. Perhaps they really are well-informed – but this is your show, not theirs. Patience is key here. Wait them out. They will have to breathe at some point. Look for the pause and then jump in with a firm “thank you!” If they rise up again, a second powerful tactic is to slow them down with a very, very difficult question.

3. The Silent Starer, part 1

At least with a Heckler and Talker, at least you know someone’s listening! But when you’re speaking to a silent face you’re likely to guess is bored or indifferent. Even worse: they might be acting superior to you and your content. With all due finesse, engage that bored person by asking their opinion; challenge the indifferent with a provocative question – and play up to the experience of the person who is “superior”.

4. The Silent Starer part 2

We often misinterpret silence for disagreement or conflict. But just as often as you face a Heckler, you will face someone struggling with their self-confidence – worried their question will sound stupid to the group. If you can, offer a way for them to share questions or ideas on notecards without forcing them to speak up publicly. When the insecure person does venture an opinion, express sincere gratitude.

5. The Helper

A little help is nice. Too much help, too often, is bad – especially when it comes from one member of your audience over and over again. They’re not malicious but soon their behavior will make it impossible for you to engage with anyone else. With careful tact, preempt their responses to your questions by calling directly on others. To keep the Helper an ally, call on them for topic summaries and discussions.

6. The Side Conversationalist

At a previous job, I would do my best to avoid sitting by a specific manager during meetings because she was a Side Conversationalist – to her, every topic sparked a side comment or a personal story. A speaker can end this distracting behavior (without sarcasm, which causes embarrassment) by directly asking them a relevant yet relatively easy question that brings them back to the primary discussion.

7. The Clown

The offspring of the Side Conversationalist and the Heckler, the Clown is sometimes funny, sometimes offensive. He makes jokes, distracts the audience and disrupts all discussions. Don’t set yourself up in opposition to the Clown, which could alienate the audience. Instead, win the Clown over by giving them an essential task like taking notes of brainstorming ideas or keeping the meeting on schedule.

8. The Wet Blanket

Every speaker dreads the arrival of the Wet Blanket. They gripe. They moan. They infect and undermine the confidence of the group. A prepared facilitator, however, is ready to move in and shield the group from the Wet Blanket by asking him to suggest solutions to the very problems they describe. For “It will never work”, ask what would work, or how the idea might be modified. For “We tried it before” sincerely ask for new ways to tackle the problem that contributes to group goals.

9. The Obstinater

The Obstinator will not budge on a point – and hijacks the whole session. Tossing the view out to the group and enlisting their help is a possibility but you can’t always control what the group. When you really must end the point and move on, pull out the “Parking Lot”. Ask someone in the group (maybe The Clown, who is taking notes) to write the objection on a sheet labeled “Parking Lot.” This technique validates the person’s point – but ends the gridlock and allows you to move on with the presentation.

10. The Clash

Not the band – the kind of challenge that arises when your personality just will not tolerate someone from the audience, or vice versa. Highlighting this clash is only going to divide your audience into factions, so before any differences of opinion turn to full-blown conflict, quickly identify any points you can agree on, minimize the disagreements and focus back on the overall objective of the discussion.

11. The Sniper

A more subtle version of the Heckler (with a bit of the Clown tossed in) the Sniper tends to toss out personal cheap shots and barbs (verbal and non-verbal). Most of the time, it’s best to ignore these comments. However, since this is one behavior rarely supported by the group, don’t hesitate to get the feedback of the audience on the Sniper’s comments.

12. The Fidgeter

On Fidgeter is okay. If more than one person is showing signs of the Fidgets, however, you may have an environmental crisis on your hands. If you can, take a break and check the room temperature, the lighting and the room layout. Can everyone see clearly? If there doesn’t seem to be a physical problem, look toward your presentation and proceed cautiously. A great preparation tip to avoid a room full of Fidgeters: before a session, informally gather information about other projects or problems the group may be facing. That may be the source of their distraction, not your presentation – or style.

Now, you’re ready to face any challenging audience behavior head-on – and win back the crowd! You’ll wow the boss, get great reviews, and you’ll be asked to present again!

Sorry, didn’t I mention that mastering these techniques would lead to more public speaking?

Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan


Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan is a writer and mother to three boys that are forced to endure her edible adventures weekly. Desserts are her speciality, as well as failed pancake experiments. Elizabeth writes the blog Try It & You May and Our Better Daycare. She also owns Sweet Tooth Communications, LLC. You can follow Elizabeth at @prbysweettooth and find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/SweetToothCommunications.

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How bout the "Helen Thomas?" You know, the one person who always has to have the mic first when it's opened up to questions?

Every industry I've been around has one.


The one that gets on my nerves the quickest...whether I am presenting or the one sitting beside them...is "The Side Conversationalist". I feel like I get roped into the rudeness when they start talking sideways to me. Disrupts the speaker and the people around you.

Great breakdown on the different personalities, Elizabeth.


Good advice! I've met many from this eclectic cast along the way. Certainly being able to identify each personality, and to determine where they're coming from, helps to diffuse a potential sideshow. Paying attention, being able to read my audience, being able to adapt, and especially to laugh, always helps me keep control, win them over, and allows me to sparkle in my performance! Great post!


HI Elizabeth,

As someone who did speech & debate in high school (domestic extemp) and who was a teaching assistant, I'm pretty sure I've met all of these personalities, and they are all dreadfully hard to deal with when you are speaking in front of a group. I always try to move around a lot and revert to humor when i can, but even then, someone will refuse to let that frown become a smile. Ultimately, you have to try to look at your audience in a big picture kind of way. If the reception is good overall, you can't let that one Debbie Downer get you down. But it can definitely be a challenge :)

Great post!